Language Binging- The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

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Hello, my name is Colleen and I’m a language addict.

     Yes, you read that right.  I confess- I’m hopelessly addicted to linguistic play in multiple tongues.  I crave grammar charts and vocabulary lists.  I lose my mind over multi-lingual adaptations of my favorite Disney tunes.  I can’t help but organize the language learning materials every time I visit Barnes & Noble.

Normally, I manage to keep my addiction under control.  I stick to one language at a time and take small sips occasionally throughout the week.  But now and again, I find myself on a language binge.

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What is a language binge, you ask?

I define it as the period of time when one goes a bit “language” happy.  For myself, I consume loads of material in a variety of languages in a very short time.  This week for example, I’ve cycled between my Japanese study materials, ASL videos, Spanish telenovelas, and of course, standard English input.  Beyond that, I find myself perusing Italian learning blogs and contemplating French words, and wondering if Swahili is really my best choice for an African language.  In short, I’ve been going overboard in my language studies.

The question I put forth today then is:  Is this a bad thing?

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  My loyal followers can probably guess my answer by now… it depends.

     A friend of mine and I were discussing this recently.  He’s been finding himself poking here and there at a variety of new languages, while still focused on learning Mandarin.  Korean and Spanish both have his eye but he hasn’t decided to commit yet.  He wondered whether by spending time looking at new languages if he was hurting his Mandarin study.  After all time spent looking up the Korean writing system or discussing Spanish verb conjugations is time he’s not spending studying his current language, so it’s wasted, right?

Not necessarily.   We talked about it, as I’m in a similar space right now.  And we both came to a conclusion- looking around at other languages was actually helping re-invigorate our interest and appreciation for the languages we were currently working on.  In turn, this meant we not only put in our daily study time on our current languages, but also approached the time with more enthusiasm and drive.  Personally, I get more out of my learning if I’m excited about it.

 image(I mean, look at how excited these two are!  Don’t you just want to join their thirst for knowledge?!?)

    You see, when you’re a linguaphile (someone who adores languages and their structures in and of themselves), you sometimes get bored looking at the same language day after day.  You love your language, you do.  But the verb conjugations just won’t seem to stick or you swear you’ll never draw those ideograms quite correctly.  Taking a break to look at another language can help remind you why you became interested in the first place.

Sometimes it can even lead to random breakthroughs.  Personally I finally learned to roll my “rr”s in Spanish after learning to sing in Italian for a Solo & Ensemble piece.   Comparing the honorifics and social niceties of Korean may help you better grasp the system in Japanese.  Or maybe you’ll just learn a cool new word- libélula is a particular favorite of mine. 😉

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So what’s the downside to a language binge?  It can turn into language burnout if you aren’t careful.  You can actually get sick of all that new as quickly as you got excited.  Moreover, you can become overwhelmed.   You can convince yourself that you are going to actively learn all the languages right now!  And then become very frustrated when you realize you probably can’t juggle that many tongues at once.

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The key is to use your language binge wisely.  Let it be a source of excitement and wonder but don’t let a few days of exploring turn into obligatory daily web searches.  When the binge stops being fun, it stops being useful.  The same is NOT true of steady language learning.  There will be days when you don’t feel like doing flashcards on your target language, but should recognize that it’s good for you to do them anyway.  But a binge is different- it’s an opportunity to try on a bunch of different linguistic systems but not necessarily buy any of them right then.  And that’s why when the fun is gone, it’s time to go home while you still have your wallet and your dignity.  Your target language will be waiting there, a cup of tea and an understanding smile ready to greet your return.

Hope you all are reaching your Polyglot Potential this summer.  Thanks for reading and never forget- POLYGLOT POWER!

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Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 06/09/14.

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Live Teacher Revives Dead Language

This is a guest post from my father, who was kind enough to write about his experiences learning Latin back in high school.  Originally posted 6/3/14.

I officially attempted to enter ancient Roma via freshman Latin class in the fall of 1967. I had casually encountered Romulus and Remus the prior year in what would now be referred to as an exploratory eighth grade foreign language experience. Not all experiences are welcoming. My eighth grade encounter was one of discomfort. We paid tuition, one quarter to attempt readings from a textbook which appeared to have been printed on Guttenberg’s press. We also grappled at matching accurate Latin vocabulary with English phrases. This all occurred in a hot classroom, with tweeting birds on a few blue sky spring Saturdays. When a boy’s heart is out the window, his powers of concentration have met their kryptonite.

       It is a safe bet that no reader of this blog has less foreign language expertise than I. Even with that sour milk taste in my mouth, I still signed on to a couple years of Latin in high school. I remember that pair of years fondly. Not due to my expertise but because my instructor was in love. In love with a dead language. At the time, I expected that she was old enough to have once chatted with Romulus and Remus. She had that same face of age that I currently notice in my mirror. However, she had the linguistic soul of a young romantic.

       The language experiences of my youth suggest to me that nothing entices linguistic learning like the enthusiasm of an instructor smitten with their subject. My teacher always expected us to eventually drink the Kool-aid and live to love Latin. She was not entirely successful but nor was she a failure. She tweaked our interest against long odds. She paddled upstream against the negative current that our exploratory class had instilled.

       If there are any morals to this story, I expect that they are the following. In a first language experience, it may be more effective to partner with a child’s sense of play than to attempt to oppose and conquer it. An ugly taste for one’s subject can be washed away with the proper dose of one’s soul-felt enthusiasm. It is possible to follow language failure with language success. Finally, Rome was not built in a day. It just took me two years of an enthusiastic teacher to finally understand that my Latin text was telling me that Romulus and Remus were Roma’s founders.

Many thanks for his comical yet very accurate post.  I hope you all enjoyed!  

When You Look in the Mirror

Last week I wrote about what I see as the #1 reason why many people don’t learn languages.  They start off with the best of intentions, but don’t actually make consistent  use of the tools they acquire.

This IS a huge reason why many people don’t end up being the bodacious bilinguals they want to be.  But there is a sadder reason why others don’t achieve it.

They don’t think they can.

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I have met so many people who tell me they just don’t have what it takes to learn a language.  Their reasons often include:

–       I’m not smart enough.

–       My memory sucks.

–       I just don’t have a “knack” for languages.

–       I’m too old.  (Often spoken by people under 40.)

This saddens me folks, because scientifically speaking you absolutely DO have a knack for languages.  Your brain is hard-wired to process it- it’s been doing so since you were born.  If you competently speak your first language, then you ARE capable of speaking a second or even a third or more languages.

(To those worried about not possessing an innate ability or talent for languages, I’d like to mention that linguists are actually in hot debate over whether or not such a thing actually exists.  The two primary professors of my graduate program in TESOL studies differed greatly.  My advisor did NOT believe there was such a thing as “innate talent for languages” while my other professor did think some people had more of a knack for it than others.  I’ll debate this topic at some point with a few polyglot friends of mine but for now take comfort in the fact that there have been NO conclusive studies to show that certain people have any more talent for languages than others.  You CAN do this.)

Intelligence and memory do help.  I’d be lying if I told you otherwise.  BUT intelligence is multi-faceted and where it seems inadequate in one area, it often more than makes up for it in another.  Memory can be improved and there are a plethora of ways to do so.  (Some will be discussed here.)  But also realize this- you really only need about 500 words to start reading and speaking at a basic level in any language.  That sounds like a lot until you realize the average language has 250,000 words.  That means you only need to learn 0.2% of the vocabulary available in order to really get started.  I promise once you get started, vocabulary will generally add itself naturally to your mental inbox, just like it does in English.

(Sidenote- English, last I checked, has more than 1 million words still listed as in effective use.  You speak this language without knowing all of them- you can do it for another.)

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(For the record- I love this lady.  She kept it real.  I don’t mean any disrespect in posting this.)

Finally, to my favorite MYTH to crush.  “Young people learn languages faster… you’ll never be bilingual if you didn’t learn as a child… I’m too old.”  This is one misconception that I’d love to annihilate from the planet because it is absolutely, completely, 100% FALSE.  That’s right, folks.  Your age does NOT impair your ability to learn language.

 

 

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In fact, studies have shown that adults are capable of learning languages much FASTER than their kid student counterparts.  Why?  You have all this awesome background knowledge to help you!  You know by this point how to study (though we could all use a few pointers in a new subject area), you know a first language solidly and can make connections across languages, and you even have a wide array of mental images and memories that you can attach new information to, helping your brain access it faster and more efficiently.

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The ONLY aspect of language where children excel beyond adults is in pronunciation. As we age, the cilia in our ears decrease. That’s why you can’t hear as high of frequencies with age.  This also means your ability to discern nuances between sounds (specific phonemes) also decreases. However, you are still more than capable of speaking the language within the “range of acceptability”- i.e. in a manner that native speakers can
understand you.

The big difference between kid and adult learners is kids don’t consciously realize they are learning a language and they often feel they HAVE to learn the language in order to get what they want.  If Mom only speaks Spanish (at least to them), then if they want milk, by golly they’ve got to learn that word leche.  We learn what we have to in order to satisfy our own needs and desires.  I am certain at some point in your career you have been tasked with something you were uncertain how to do.  (If you haven’t, *SPOILER ALERT*, you will be.)  Your choice was learn how to do the task or find another job.  I’m guessing most chose the former.

Okay, I’ve rambled enough.  What’s my point?

My point is this- if you look in the mirror everyday and the person you see is someone incapable of learning a new language, then my friend you’ve lost before you’ve even begun.  As Henry Ford once said:

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

Most of us life-long learners like to make goals and that is fantastic.  What’s important is to remember there are three kinds of goals: appearance, performance, and identity.  (Please see this blog for a way more thorough and much better explanation than I’m about to give.)

Appearance goals are the ultimate achievements. Your appearance goal as a polyglot is likely a visual image of yourself conversing easily with natives of your target language. This is great- but ultimately you don’t have a lot of control over this BIG goal. The control you do have comes from achieving a series of smaller goals that all contribute to it.

These are called Performance goals. This could be to learn twenty words a week, or spend ten minutes a day listening to the news your L2, or even read the newspaper in your new language once a month.  These are tangible, actionable pieces that are invaluable to you achieving your ultimate, appearance goals.  But before you start creating these, there is one more set of goals you HAVE to address.

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Identity goals are, in my humble opinion, the KEY to achieving the rest of this puzzle. This is about how you see yourself.  Are you someone who is incapable or incompetent at learning languages?  Or do you see yourself as a future polyglot?  Do you look in the mirror and see an explorer ready to tack a new set of words and syntax, a voyager into the lands of verbs unknown? If you start seeing the potential in yourself, the rest of the goals are going to be MUCH easier to achieve.

NOTE- I said easier and not easy.  You still have to do the work and there will be days you don’t want to.  But if you see yourself as capable of mastering your L2, if you stop seeing your brain as an obstacle and rather as a fantastic tool, you CAN become the polyglot of your own dreams.

Now, for a bit of tough love before I sign off.  Many people use the “I can’t learn a language” phrase to mask this reality: “I’d like to be able to speak another language but I don’t want to put in the work.  To these people let me say this:

It is perfectly OK if you do not feel you have the time, energy, or motivation to devote to learning a new language.  What is NOT okay is perpetuating the idea that some people are incapable of doing so.

Every time you say that about yourself, others hear it and absorb that message.  Particularly young ears.  They become convinced that the ability to pick up a new language is something “you’ve either got or don’t.”  And far too early students convince themselves they don’t got it.  That’s the sad part.

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Be honest with yourself.  Do you really WANT to learn a new language, to the point that you are willing to make the relationship sacrifices I discussed last week?  If not, fine.  Just admit that to yourself and others.

But if you are, do NOT let anyone, especially your inner demons convince you that you can’t.  You are more than capable, and with the right set of tools, you are unstoppable.

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Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 03/17/14.

The Parable of the Wannabe Polyglot

Once, long ago, an aspiring but disillusioned polyglot sought out the Keeper of the Languages.  It was a long and arduous journey, but the Seeker brought snacks so all was well.  When at long last the Seeker found the Keeper of the Languages, the wannabe polyglot knelt at the Keeper’s feet.                             image

“Oh your Linguintastic Awesomeness, I have traveled long and far to ask of your wisdom.  I too wish to reach Multilingual Nirvana but alas nothing I have tried has worked.

I bought language dictionaries.  I collected youtube videos.  I signed up for classes on Coursera and LiveMocha.  I even took out a second loan and bought Rosetta Stone!  Yet still I am but a single language speaker.  What is the SECRET, oh great Keeper of the Languages?”

The Keeper looked down at the Seeker, smiling in a knowing fashion. Then the Great Fountain of Linguistic Knowledge spoke:

“My child, I hear that you have gathered many tools.  But, may I ask, have you actually USED any of them?”image

This parable is a direct derivative of the various people who have asked me what they need to do to learn a language.  People always ask me WHICH tools they need to achieve their goal.  Certainly some tools ARE better than others (otherwise this blog would be moot), yet I can’t help but feel they are missing the point.

The secret to successfully learning a language isn’t so much about the tools; it’s about the commitment.image

Language is a DAILY practice- it requires consistent nurturing and tune-up.  I have watched people spend hundreds of dollars on software programs and books, and then watched all of it gather dust on shelves.  Rosetta Stone does not work if one leaves the CDs in the box.  Same goes for paying/signing up for courses and not showing up.

A fellow polyglot friend and I once joked that languages become significant others.  The plus side is there are no laws against polyamory with a set of abstract concepts, so you don’t have to worry about committing to more than one.  Bear with me as I expand on this crazy metaphor.

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First, you flirt with a language.  You eye it across the bar- wow those words are beautiful.  And check out that syntax!  You’re smitten and you check out a few webpages or thumb through a book or two at Barnes and Noble.

Next comes dating your language.  For those fearing rejection, languages are always up for a good time, though some play hard to get a bit more than others.  You gather resources, you play around a bit, you get native speaker friends to teach you a few words.  It’s light, it’s fun, you wonder where these words have been all your life.                             image

Then reality hits you.  You are in a significant relationship and you don’t really know when that happened.  All you know is this beautiful abstract phenomenon has a hold of your wallet and your time, but you’re not as sure about your heart.  You’ve learned enough to hold basic survival conversations- are you sure you want any more out of this relationship?  It’s time to either put a ring on it or see other grammar charts.

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(This stage can be particularly interesting if you’re on your 3rd or more language.  My friend equated working on his 3rd language as feeling almost like he was cheating on his 2nd.  Obviously his time was now being split and he felt like he had neglected the 2nd language some in the process of courting the 3rd.  I equated the 3rd to being his mistress.  Again, the good news is that languages are wonderfully accepting and lack the jealousy found in most relationships.  Therefore, you can split your time as you desire- guilt-free!)

Finally, if you do decide to make a life-long commitment to your language, you will find some similarities to taking on a spouse.  It will require your time and even some monetary investment.  You will have good times and bad times (“Why the *BLEEP* do I have to learn subjunctive to stay with you?  Screw your irregular verbs!  I hate your lack of consistent pronunciation!).  You will take trips together, meet other couples (fellow polyglots get easier to spot with time), and chase a variety of dreams together.  And if you really love your language, you will find this commitment to be one of the most fulfilling of your life.

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So my friends, if you stumbled upon this blog wanting to know THE SECRET to learning languages, this is what I offer you.

Be prepared for a SIGNIFICANT commitment.  One that will be with you daily from now on.  Be prepared to give time to your language and be prepared to make some sacrifices.  

From personal experience, I can promise you this.  The rewards far outweigh the costs.  I strongly recommend embarking on a tryst with a language today.

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Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 03/11/14.